Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Spins a Web, In Kilobites-Shortpacked

Shortpacked is a comic about toys.

It’s not just a webcomic about toys; it’s also about superheroes, working retail, drama, television, celebrities, your twenties, and even a little bit about politics (in that it’s as much about politics as it is any of the other subjects it dabbles in, but when it does, it avoids becoming a polemic or serious discussion). It’s David Willis speaking to his own demographic; he’s not the blank slate everymen of Penny Arcade, but he is a standard bearer.

The comparison to Penny Arcade is illuminating. I’m fond of saying that Mike and Jerry have grown up with their audience, getting married, having children, and even leaving some of the passionate immersion in video gaming that initially made them so relatable behind. Willis, despite being essentially self-employed and weaving his marriage proposal and marriage into the strip’s many non-sequiturs, manages to craft a strip about being in your late twenties, dating, and working for the man. Shortpacked! is essentially a situation comedy dialed up to twenty and put on Showtime.

That’s not an insult. Calling Shortpacked! a sitcom might seem disparaging, but that’s only because your average sitcom is toothless, restrained, and utterly generic; recycling plotlines, encounters, and characters from dozens of sitcoms before it in hopes that this particular Frankensteinian corpse, comprised of these particular reused human parts will somehow become animate and beloved by millions if you keep shocking it with electricity. Shortpacked!, as you might have guessed, is no-holds barred narrative that has no limits, isn’t afraid to ridicule you, your hobbies, or itself in the name of cracking a joke, and will integrate and cast off characters with the absolutism and randomness of a katamari with palsy.

You never know what’s going to happen next. Mere randomness isn’t necessarily a good thing--I’ve seen enough off-putting, live-action [Adult Swim] programming to know that--it’s that what Willis does isn’t randomness. It’s more akin to Deadpool filling a pool with pancakes so Domino can fall through a skylight into a soft, welcoming pool of tastiness; it’s order that seems like madness, and it spawns from an underlying method. Though I don’t know him personally, I imagine that Willis is as bored with most entertainment as we are. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, whenever we experience a movie, a television show, or a book, there are rules and we are aware of them. A few of these things break these conventions, but as we receive more of that content, we realize the particular rules for that series and begin to understand them. Whatever follows after that understanding either operates within those guidelines and becomes boring, or operates outside of them and violates our internal assumptions about previous content, a big reason why movies tend to be more talked about than television series and why sequels never seem quite as good as the original.

As you might have guessed, for serial fiction (comic books, soap operas, and webcomics), this is particularly onerous; each new installment has to provide something new, but work just within or just outside of the framework the regular viewer expects. Willis, especially with his latest story, which gains world peace at the cost of a single relationship, and contains dozens of touch points with the rest of the series spanning over the past several years, manages to reshape those expectations even as he ties the narrative to itself tightly enough that it’s hard to ever say he’s outside of the universe he’s initially presented. Even when he hasn’t strictly supported everything he’s done with pieces of easily-overlooked establishment, he’s willing to take risks because even if it doesn’t match the framework of the viewer, his story consistently matches an internal framework.

In general whenever a story I like seems like it’s going off of the rails, I consider the artist in question and ask if they’ve got the credibility to see me through it; if their work in the past is worth my faith now, when I most doubt it. On those occasions when Willis’ gives me this pause to consider, I almost always answer yes. More quickly now than I have in the past.

Have I mentioned it’s funny? It’s incredibly funny. That sometimes the characters and events from “Shortpacked!” fade into the background of one-off Transformers riffs, Luann reimaginings, and memetic takes on Batman gives the strip a feeling of spontaneity and a break from the norm that filler weeks, and even aggressive cuts between contemporaneous action can’t quite achieve. Sure, you’re watching congressional gridlock over Rock Band instead of knowing what happens to Ethan next, but it’s not all-Shortpacked! all the time and yet it’s still Shortpacked!. Maybe I have a short attention span. Maybe I’m what’s wrong with America, but even if I love a new comic strip, the archives can be a slog of sameness punctuated by filler weeks. Not so with Shortpacked!, which keeps itself (mostly) fresh with the antics of Optimus Prime and Funky Winkerbean, as well as Robin DeSanto.

Much of this can be attributed to David Willis’ extensive work in webcomics. He’s been making webcomics for well over a decade starting with (as far as I can tell) a college strip about Roomies!, followed by a dramadey strip about an alien-fighting agency called It’s Walky!, before beginning his longest-running work to date; Shortpacked!. He also makes Dumbing of Age, an alternate universe take on his largest characters set in a toned-down college setting. He’s also got several Shortpacked! books out, which collect Shortpacked strips and contain some  bonus materials. No shirts though, which has always struck me as kind of strange.

I could expound on these, remarking on the thoroughly-utilized characters, the life changes of both Willis and his readers reflected by the advancing comics, and the overall advancements made in both storytelling and art over the course of this series, but I guess I ought to save something for whenever I review one of his other comics one day.

Shortpacked TNI
It’s Walky - Includes 'Roomies' and 'Joyce & Walky'
Dumbing of Age
Willis’ Twitter

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